Sculpted by wind and water over countless millennia, the remote canyons and plateaus of southeastern Utah were among the last parts of the American West to be seen by travelers from the East — indeed, much of this country remained uncharted until well into the 20th century.
1. Fishlake Scenic Byway
Beginning at the little hamlet of Sigurd, the drive follows Rte.24 southeast through miles of sagebrush country. After turning north onto Rte.25, the road climbs to a lofty perch of nearly 9,000 feet. Here, cradled amidst the meadows and aspen groves of Fishlake National Forest, lies blue-green Fish Lake, its deep, cold waters teeming with four kinds of trout. A shoreline path and numerous mountain bike trails lead to views of snowcapped peaks as well as to glimpses of wildflowers, waterfowl, deer, elk, and moose. Boat rentals, campgrounds, and cabins enable travelers to enjoy the area and take their time exploring the gemlike lake. To continue the drive, double back to Rte.24 and head east toward Torrey.
The high Southwest is a landscape of surprising transitions, where cool wooded valleys can give way in a few short miles to otherworldly formations of sunset-colored sandstone. Rte.24 makes just such a passage from one terrain to another as it follows the Fremont River, swinging south and east of a great plateau crested by the lofty ramparts of Thousand Lake Mountain. By the time you see the ruddy shaft of Chimney Rock rising high above the highway east of Torrey, the pine-scented woods surrounding Fish Lake will seem far away indeed. You are now at the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park, where nature has practiced the fine art of sculpture but has left the horticulture to humans.
3. Capitol Reef National Park
Named for a white sandstone dome that suggested the U.S. Capitol to approaching pioneers, Capitol Reef National Park is a 70-mile strip of stark and surreal terrain whose “reef” is its centerpiece. Vivid petroglyphs, drawings etched into stone that depict desert bighorn sheep along with human figures holding shields and wearing headdresses, testify to the presence of the mysterious Fremont Indians 1,000 years ago. Later came the Paiutes and the Navajos, who gave the multicolored rock layers a name that means “sleeping rainbows.” As the last century closed, Mormon families sought solace in the shadow of Capitol Reef. In their tiny, optimistically named community of Fruita, these peaceable souls planted orchards, tended farms, and grazed livestock for more than 50 years, until the hamlet’s utter isolation made living here intolerable. At the site of their abandoned community, a restored one-room schoolhouse — empty since 1941 — and other wooden structures tell of a land brought to life by the Fremont River. Peaches, apricots, cherries, pears, and apples are still here for the picking, for a nominal Park Service fee.
5. Lake Powell Overlook Along the lonely highway connecting Capitol Reef to Hanksville, the Henry Mountains rise in arid desolation to the south. Outlaws once hid rustled cattle in the shadows of these weathered peaks. Bison still wander in the foothills, where prospectors have sought gold for a hundred years and more. Fifteen miles south of Hanksville, off Rte. 95, an unpaved side road leads to the russet-hued canyon of the Dirty Devil River, so named in the 1800s by explorer John Wesley Powell because of its mud and stench. At the overlook some 35 miles to the south, the panorama of Lake Powell (named for the explorer) comes into view. Nearly 200 miles long, the lake took 17 years to fill Glen Canyon after the Colorado River was dammed; in the process, it wandered into so many side canyons that its shoreline extends for a staggering 2,000 miles — longer than the entire West Coast. The rich red walls of those inundated canyons rise abruptly from the waterline, contrasting sublimely with the lake’s cerulean waters.
6. Hite Crossing Named for Cass Hite, a prospector who in the 1880s ferried wayfarers across the Colorado River, Hite Crossing is now the northernmost passage across the portion of the river that has become Lake Powell — but instead of a ferry, a bridge now takes traffic across the transformed canyon. For travelers on Rte. 95, Hite Crossing is the threshold of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, more than a million acres of wilderness playground surrounding Lake Powell. The local marina rents houseboats and smaller craft, enabling visitors to explore the endless array of azure bays and ruddy canyons that branch out all along the lake.
7. Natural Bridges National Monument Spanning the twisting streambeds of White Canyon, three natural bridges attest to the persistence of flowing water. Fashioned of tawny sandstone millions of years old, the bridges — called Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo — are the centerpieces of Natural Bridges National Monument, some 50 miles southeast of Hite Crossing. Atop a 6,500-foot-high plateau that commands a southerly overview of Arizona’s Monument Valley, a road and hiking trail link the three bridges, which were formed by silted floodwaters that scraped out shortcuts between tight loops in the canyons. Sipapu, first along the drive, is the second-largest such bridge in the world; its height is equal to that of a 20-story building, and its span is nearly the length of a football field. Kachina, the youngest bridge, is the least worn down by wind and water. Owachomo, the oldest, is apt to be the first to fall: at 180 feet across, its span is a comparatively delicate strand barely nine feet thick. Human engineering, too, shaped the scenery at Natural Bridges. Along Bridge View Drive the entrances to ancient Anasazi dwellings gape from a steep rock slope. Few places on earth can boast a climate and an architecture in such perfect harmony.
8. Mule Canyon Rest Area Another abandoned Anasazi settlement survives in the South Fork of Mule Canyon, a 15-minute drive from Natural Bridges on Rte. 95. Among the stone and adobe structures — scarcely different in hue and texture from the rock that surrounds them — are a circular tower and a kiva, an underground chamber where members of the community met. Drought most likely drove the Anasazis from the area in the 13th century. More of their sun-baked ruins are found in Arch Canyon, visible from a side road found off Rte.95 a mile to the east.
9. Comb Ridge Comb Ridge rises with daunting abruptness from the floor of Comb Wash, east of Mule and Arch canyons. Rte.95 ascends the 800-foot-high ridge, where the view encompasses this massive upthrust of the earth’s c rust as it extends toward the southern horizon.
10. Edge of the Cedars State Park The sense of a forgotten age permeates the Anasazi ruins at Edge of the Cedars State Park, in Blanding off Rte. 191. Here six complexes of residential and ceremonial structures have been noted by archaeologists, and a sizable Anasazi pottery collection is housed in a park museum. Each site has its kiva, and one even possesses a “great” kiva, a cathedral among its kind and the spiritual focus of a world that has since passed into history.
11. Monticello Head north 22 miles from Blanding to reach Monticello, the little San Juan County seat perched high in the foothills of the Abajo Mountains. The early Spanish explorers who saw these rounded summits as abajo (“low”) must have been duped by a desert illusion; Abajo Peak itself, accessible on foot or by four-wheel-drive vehicle, rises to an elevation of more than 11,000 feet. Today these Blue Mountains, as they a re also called, are part of the 1.2-million-acre Manti — La Sal National Forest, where cool pine woods offer respite from arid canyons and sun-seared plateaus. A haven for campers year-round and a winter magnet for skiers, Manti — La Sal represents the green side of a land that, while beautiful, is typically limned in shades of ocher and vermilion.
12. Canyonlands National Park About 60 miles from Monticello by way of Rtes. 191 and 211, Canyonlands is the largest yet least developed of the national parks in Utah. It encompasses a vast expanse of mesas and canyons surrounding the muddy confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. The rivers divide the park into four unique districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves. Among the strangest of these districts is the Needles, a surreal jumble of stone turrets, towers, and minarets fashioned from Permian sandstone that is banded in shades of cream and rust. Here awed visitors gaze at giant spires — some up to 30 stories high. Historic people of many cultures have visited Canyonlands over a span lasting more than 10,000 years — relying on and exploiting the rich resources that hide in the desert landscape. Many prehistoric campsites exist within the park’s boundaries. For several miles after entering the park, Rte.211 snakes by sites with such names as Wooden Shoe Overlook, Squaw Flat, and Pothole Point and reaches a dead end at Big Spring Canyon. Fourwheel- drive roads and trails lead deep into the Needles backcountry — among them the harrowing Elephant Hill Road, where one particular turn can be made only after backing up to the edge of a sheer precipice that has no guardrail. Short trails lead to an ancient Anasazi granary and to an abandoned cowboy’s camp that features century-old wooden and iron handmade furnishings.
13. Arches National Park Returning to Rte. 191, the drive heads north to Moab, then crosses the Colorado River and arrives at the entrance to Arches National Park. Given the singularity and variety of the rock formations here, it’s not surprising that early explorers mistook them for the ruins of an ancient civilization. Within the park are more than 2,000 named arches, as well as other natural sculptures — domes, walls, spires, precariously balanced rocks, and figures resembling monumental chess pieces. In the section of the park called The Windows stand several giant arches, and a few miles north is the often-photographed, freestanding Delicate Arch, regarded by many as the parks crown jewel. Farther to the north, at Devils Garden, is another collection of awesome arches with such names as Dark Angel, Pine Tree, Tunnel, Double O, and the long, graceful but alarmingly thin Landscape Arch. Departing from Arches, the drive heads south for a few miles on Rte.191 before turning northeast on Rte.128, a 44-mile scenic byway that terminates at I-70. Paralleling the Colorado River most of the way (look for rafters in summer), the route skirts Castle Valley, a famous backdrop for Hollywood films; the high mudstone ramparts of Fisher Towers; and the old Dewey Bridge, a one lane wood-and-steel suspension bridge built in 1916 and now closed to all but foot traffic. From the perspective of the route just traveled, this retired structure reminds us that man-made bridges are short-lived compared to arches Formed as soft, underlying layers of sandstone eroded, Mesa Arch is in the heart of the Island in the Sky section of Canyonland National Park. Trip Tips
Length: About 450 miles in total, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Words to the wise: On back roads bring ample water, food, and extra fuel.
Not to be missed: Canyonlands by Night (sound and light show on a Colorado River cruise, from May through October), Rte. 191, Moab.
Nearby attractions: Dead Horse Point State Park (off Rte. 313).
Valley of the Gods (off Rte.261).
Visitor centers: Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands national parks. Natural Bridges National Monument.
Further information: Utah Travel Council, 300 No. State St., Salt Lake City, UT 84114; tel. 800-200-1160, www.utah.com
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